History of the Russian language

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The history proper of the Russian language dates from just before the turn of the second millennium.

Note. In the following sections, all examples of vocabulary are given in their modern spelling.

Historical development

Kievan period and feudal breakup

The 14th-century Novgorodian children were literate enough to send each other birch-bark letters written in the Old Novgorod dialect.

Up to the 14th century, ancestors of the modern Russians (who likewise called themselvesruskiye) spoke dialects of the Old East Slavic language, related to those of other East Slavs. This spoken tongue and the literary Old Church Slavonic language were used throughoutKievan Rus. The earliest written record of the language is an amphora found at Gnezdovo and tentatively dated to the mid-10th century. Until the 15th century, Gnezdovo was a part of the independent Principality of Smolensk.

For the debate concerning derivation of the words Rus and Russia, see Etymology of Rus and derivatives and Rus' (people). For the general history of the language and Old East Slavic literature, see Old East Slavic language.

During the pre-Kievan period, the main sources of borrowings were Germanic languages, particularly Gothic and Old Norse. In the Kievan period, however, loanwords and calques entered the vernacular primarily from Old Church Slavonic and from Byzantine Greek:

краткий [ˈkra.tkʲɪj] ОCS = ESl короткий 'brief'
короткий [kəˈro.tkʲɪj] ESl = CS краткий 'short'
вивлиофика [vʲɪ.vlʲɪˈo.fʲɪ.kə] Gr bibliothḗkē via OCS 'library' (archaic form)
правописание [ˈpra.və.pʲɪˈsa.nʲjə] Gr orthographíā via OCS calque:
OCS правыи [ˈpra.vɨi]=orthós 'correct',
OCS писати [pʲɪˈsa.tʲɪ] =gráphō 'write'
'spelling, orthography'

After the Mongol invasion of Rus in the 12th century, the vernacular language of the conquered remained firmly Slavic. Altaic borrowings in Russian relate mostly to commerce and the military:

товар [tɐˈvar] Turk.-Altaic 'commercial goods'
лошадь [ˈlo.ʂətʲ] Turk.-Altaic 'horse'

In Russia, Church Slavonic which evolved from Old Church Slavonic remained the literary language until the Petrine age, when its usage shrank drastically to biblical and liturgical texts. The legal acts and private letters had been, however, already written in pre-Petrine Muscovy in a less formal language, closely reflecting spoken Russian. The first Grammar of Russian Language was written by Vasily Adodurov in the 1740s, and a more influential one, by Mikhail Lomonosov in 1755.

The Moscow period (15th–17th centuries)

After the disestablishment of the "Tartar yoke" (татарское иго, [tɐˈtarskəjə ˈiɡə]) in the late fourteenth century, both the political centre and the predominant dialect in European Russia came to be based in Moscow. A scientific consensus exists that Russian and Ruthenian (the predecessor of Belarusian and Ukrainian) had definitely become distinct by this time at the latest (according to some linguists and historians, even earlier). The official language in Russia remained a kind of Church Slavonic until the close of the 18th century, but, despite attempts at standardization, as by Meletius Smotrytsky c. 1620, its purity was by then strongly compromised by an incipient secular literature. There was borrowing of vocabulary from Polish, and, through it, from German and other Western European languages. At the same time, a number of words of native (according to a general consensus among etymologists of Russian) coinage or adaptation appeared, at times replacing or supplementing the inherited Indo-European/Common Slavonic vocabulary.

глаз [ɡlas] R; relegates (to poetic use only) ComSl око [ˈo.kə] = Lat oculus = E eye 'eye'
куртка [ˈku.rtkə] P kurta, from Lat curtus 'a short jacket'
бархат [ˈba.rxət] G Barchat 'velvet'

Much annalistic, hagiographic, and poetic material survives from the early Muscovite period. Nonetheless, a significant amount of philosophic and secular literature is known to have been destroyed after being proclaimed heretical.

The material following the election of the Romanov dynasty in 1613 following the Time of Troubles is rather more complete. Modern Russian literature is considered to have begun in the seventeenth century, with the autobiography of Avvakum and a corpus of chronique scandaleuseshort stories from Moscow.

Empire (18th–19th centuries)

The first book printed in the "civil" script, 1708

The political reforms of Peter the Great were accompanied by a reform of the alphabet, and achieved their goal of secularization and modernization. Blocks of specialized vocabulary were adopted from the languages of Western Europe. Most of the modern naval vocabulary, for example, is of Dutch origin. Latin, French, and German words entered Russian for the intellectual categories of the Age of Enlightenment. Greek words already in the language through Church Slavonic were refashioned to reflect post-Renaissance European rather than Byzantine pronunciation. By 1800, a significant portion of the gentry spoke French, less often German, on an everyday basis.

мачта [ˈma.t͡ɕtə] D mast 'mast'
интерес [ɪn.tʲɪˈrʲɛs] G Interesse/Fr intérêt 'interest'
библиотека [bʲɪ.blʲɪ.ɐˈtʲɛ.kə] Gr bibliothḗkē via Fr. bibliothèque 'library' (modern form)

At the same time, there began explicit attempts to fashion a modern literary language as a compromise between Church Slavonic, the native vernacular, and the style of Western Europe. The writers Lomonosov, Derzhavin, and Karamzin made notable efforts in this respect, but, as per the received notion, the final synthesis belongs to Pushkin and his contemporaries in the first third of the nineteenth century.

During the nineteenth century, the standard language assumed its modern form; literature flourished. Spurred perhaps by the so-calledSlavophilism, some terms from another languages fashionable during the eighteenth century now passed out of use (for example, виктория[vʲiˈkto.rʲɪ.jə] > победа [pɐˈbʲɛ.də], 'victory'), and formerly vernacular or dialectal strata entered the literature as the "speech of the people". Borrowings of political, scientific and technical terminology continued. By about 1900, commerce and fashion ensured the first wave of mass adoptions from German, French and English.

социализм [sə.t͡sɪ.ɐˈlʲizm] Intl/G Sozialismus 'socialism'
конституция [kən.sʲtʲɨ.ˈtu.t͡sɨ.jə] Intl/Lat constitutio 'constitution'
антимония [ən.tʲɪˈmo.nʲɪ.jə] Gr antinomíā,
'useless debate, argument or quarrel' (dead bookish term)
митинг [ˈmʲi.tʲɪnk] E 'political rally'
прейскурант [prʲɪjs.kuˈrant] (the original unpalatalized
pronunciation of /pre-/ is still heard)
G Preiskurant/
Fr prix-courant
'price list'

Soviet period and beyond (20th century)

The political upheavals of the early twentieth century and the wholesale changes of political ideology gave written Russian its modern appearance after the spelling reform of 1918. Reformed spelling, the new political terminology, and the abandonment of the effusive formulae of politeness characteristic of the pre-Revolutionary upper classes prompted dire statements from members of the émigré intelligentsia that Russian was becoming debased. But the authoritarian nature of the regime, the system of schooling it provided from the 1930s, and not least the often unexpressed yearning among the literati for the former days ensured a fairly static maintenance of Russian into the 1980s. Though the language did evolve, it changed very gradually. Indeed, while literacy became nearly universal, dialectal differentiation declined, especially in the vocabulary: schooling and mass communications ensured a common denominator.

The 1964 proposed reform was related to the orthography. In that year the Orthographic commission of the Institute of the Russian language (Academy of Sciences of the USSR), headed by Viktor Vinogradov, apart from the withdrawal of some spelling exceptions, suggested to:

  • leave one partitive soft sign
  • always write "i" after "tse"
  • write "o" after "zhe", "che", "sha", "shcha", "tse" if stressed or "ye" if no
  • not to write the soft sign after "zhe", "sha", "che", "shcha"
  • cancel the interchange in roots -zar/-zor, -rast/-rost, -gar/-gor, -plav/-plov etc., cancel the double consonants in loan words
  • write only -yensk(iy) instead of two suffixes -insk(iy) and -yensk(iy), write only -yets instead of -yets or -its
  • simplify the spelling of "en" (en-en) in participles: write double "en" in prefixal participles and ordinary "en" in non-prefixal
  • always write with hyphen the "pol-" (half-) combinations with subsequent genitive of noun or ordinal number
  • write the nouns beginning with vice-, Unter-, ex- together
  • write all particles separately
  • allow the optional spelling of noun inflexions

The reform however failed to be accomplished.

Political circumstances and the undoubted accomplishments of the superpower in military, scientific, and technological matters (especially cosmonautics), gave Russian a world-wide if occasionally grudging prestige, most strongly felt during the middle third of the twentieth century.

большевик [bəlʲ.ʂɐˈvʲik] R 'Bolshevik' (lit. 'adherent of the maximum programme',
after the events of the 1903 Party congress,
also taken as 'person of the majority'.)
Комсомол [kəm.sɐˈmol] Abbreviated agglutination:
Коммунистический Союз Молодёжи
[kə.mə.nʲɪˈsʲtʲi.t͡ɕɪ.skʲɪj sɐˈjuz mə.lɐˈdʲo.ʐɨ]
'Communist Youth League'
рабфак [rɐpˈfak] Abbreviated agglutination:
рабочий факультет
[rɐˈbo.t͡ɕɪj fə.kulʲˈtʲɛt]
lit. 'faculty for workers' (special preparatory courses of colleges and universities for workers)

The collapse of 1990–91 loosened the shackles. In the face of economic uncertainties and difficulties within the educational system, the language changed rapidly. There was a wave of adoptions, mostly from English, and sometimes for words with exact native equivalents.

дистрибьютор [dʲɪ.strʲɪˈbʲju.tər] E 'distributor' (in marketing)

At the same time, the growing public presence of the Russian Orthodox Church and public debate about the history of the nation gave new impetus to the most archaic Church Slavonic stratum of the language, and introduced or reintroduced words and concepts that replicate the linguistic models of the earliest period.

младостарчество [mlə.dɐˈstar.t͡ɕɪ.stvə] R/CS, agglutination:
CS младый[ˈmla.dɨj] =
R молодой [mə.lɐˈdoj] 'young',
R/CS старец[ˈsta.rʲɪt͡s] = 'old man with spiritual wisdom'
term applied (in condemnation) by the Russian Orthodox Church to the phenomenon of immature newly-ordained priests assuming an unwarranted excessive control over the private life of the members of the congregation.

Russian today is a tongue in great flux. The new words entering the language and the emerging new styles of expression have, naturally, not been received with universal appreciation.


The following excerpts illustrate (very briefly) the development of the literary language. They have been chosen because they are to this day presented in Russian schools and universities as illuminations of linguistic and social history.

NOTE. The spelling has been partly modernized. The translations attempt to be as literal as possible; they are not literary.

Primary Chronicle

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c. 1110, from the Laurentian Codex, 1377

Се повѣсти времѧньных лѣт ‧ ѿкуду єсть пошла руская земѧ ‧ кто въ києвѣ нача первѣє кнѧжит ‧ и ѿкуду руская землѧ стала єсть.
These [are] the tales of the bygone years, whence is come the Russian land, who first began to rule at Kiev, and whence the Russian land has come about.

Early language; Russian, Ukrainian and Belarusian not yet fully differentiated. Fall of the yers in progress or arguably complete (several words end with a consonant; кнѧжит 'to rule' < кънѧжити, modern княжить). South-western (incipient Ukrainian) features include времѧньнъıх 'bygone'; modern R временных). Correct use of perfect and aorist: єсть пошла 'is/has come' (modern R пошла), нача 'began' (modern R начал as a development of the old perfect.) Note the style of punctuation.

Song of Igor

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Слово о пълку Игоревѣ. c. 1200(?), from the Catherine manuscript, c. 1790.

Не лѣпо ли ны бяшетъ братіе, начати старыми словесы трудныхъ повѣстій о полку Игоревѣ, Игоря Святъ славича? Начатижеся тъ пѣсни по былинамъ сего времени, а не по замышленію Бояню. Боянъ бо вѣщій, аще кому хотяше пѣснѣ творити, то растекашется мысію по древу, сѣрымъ волкомъ по земли, шизымъ орломъ подъ облакы.
Would it not be meet, o brothers, for us to begin with the old words the difficult telling of the host of Igor, Igor Sviatoslavich? And to begin in the way of the true tales of this time, and not in the way of Boyan's inventions. For the wise Boyan, if he wished to devote to someone [his] song, would wander like a squirrel over a tree, like a grey wolf over land, like a bluish eagle beneath the clouds.

Illustrates the sung epics. Yers generally given full voicing, unlike in the first printed edition of 1800, which was copied from the same destroyed prototype as the Catherine manuscript. Typical use of metaphor and simile. The misquote растекаться мыслью по древу ('to effuse/pour out one's thought upon/over wood'; a product of an old and habitual misreading of the word мысію, 'squirrel-like' as мыслію, 'thought-like', and a change in the meaning of the word течь) has become proverbial in the meaning 'to speak ornately, at length, excessively'.

Avvakum's autobiography

1672–73. Modernized spelling.

Таже послали меня в Сибирь с женою и детьми. И колико дорогою нужды бысть, тово всево много говорить, разве малая часть помянуть. Протопопица младенца родила; больную в телеге и повезли до Тобольска; три тысящи верст недель с тринадцеть волокли телегами и водою и саньми половину пути.

And then they sent me to Siberia with my wife and children. Whatever hardship there was on the way, there's too much to say it all, but maybe a small part to be mentioned. [My wife] (lit, the archpriest's wife) gave birth to a baby; and we carted her, sick, all the way to Tobolsk; for three thousand versts, around thirteen weeks in all, we dragged [her] by cart, and by water, and in a sleigh half of the way.

Pure seventeenth-century central Russian vernacular. Phonetic spelling (тово всево 'it all, all of that', modern того всего). A few archaisms still used (aorist in the perfective aspect бысть 'was'). Note the way of transport to exile.

Alexandr Pushkin

From "Winter Evening" (Зимний вечер), 1825. Modern spelling. About this sound listen 

Буря мглою небо кроет,
Вихри снежные крутя;
То, как зверь, она завоет,
То заплачет, как дитя,
То по кровле обветшалой
Вдруг соломой зашумит,
То, как путник запоздалый,
К нам в окошко застучит.
Tempest covers sky in haze[s],
Twisting gales full of snow;
Like a beast begins to howl,
A cry, as if a child, it will let go,
On the worn-out roof it will clamour
Suddenly upon the thatch,
Or as though a traveller tardy
Starts to knock upon our hatch. (lit., window)

Modern Russian is sometimes said to begin with Pushkin, in the sense that the old "high style" Church Slavonic and vernacular Russian are so closely fused that it is difficult to identify whether any given word or phrase stems from the one or the other.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

From Crime and Punishment (Преступление и наказание), 1866. Modern spelling.

В начале июля, в чрезвычайно жаркое время, под вечер, один молодой человек вышел из своей каморки, которую нанимал от жильцов в С-м переулке, на улицу и медленно, как бы в нерешимости, отправился к К-ну мосту.
In early July, during a spell of extraordinary heat, towards evening, a young man went out from his garret, which he sublet in S—— Lane, [entered] the street, and slowly, as though in [the grip of] indecision, began to make his way to K—— Bridge.

Nineteenth century prose. No archaisms. "European" syntax.

Fundamental laws of the Russian Empire

Основные законы Российской Империи (Constitution of the Russian Empire), 1906. Modern spelling.

Императору Всероссийскому принадлежит Верховная Самодержавная Власть. Повиноваться власти Его не только за страх, но и за совесть Сам Бог повелевает.
To the Emperor of all Russia belongs the Supreme Autocratic Power. To obey His power, not merely in fear but also in conscience, God Himself does ordain.

Illustrates the categorical nature of thought and expression in the official circles of the Russian Empire. Exemplifies the syntactic distribution of emphasis.

Mikhail Bulgakov

From The Master and Margarita (Мастер и Маргарита), 1930–40

Вы всегда были горячим проповедником той теории, что по отрезании головы жизнь в человеке прекращается, он превращается в золу и уходит в небытие. Мне приятно сообщить вам, в присутствии моих гостей, хотя они и служат доказательством совсем другой теории, о том, что ваша теория и солидна и остроумна. Впрочем, ведь все теории стоят одна другой. Есть среди них и такая, согласно которой каждому будет дано по его вере. Да сбудется же это!

You have always been a passionate proponent of the theory that upon decapitation human life comes to an end, the human being transforms into ashes, and passes into oblivion. I am pleased to inform you, in the presence of my guests, though they serve as a proof for another theory altogether, that your theory is both well-grounded and ingenious. Mind you, all theories are worth one another. Among them is one, according to which every one shall receive in line with his faith. May that come to be!

An example of highly educated modern speech (this excerpt is spoken by Woland). See Russian humor for the essential other end of the spectrum.


  1. Russian language
  2. Russian alphabet
  3. Russian orthography
  4. Russian phonology
  5. Russian grammar
  6. IPA for Russian
  7. Russian-Cyrillic alphabet
  8. Informal romanizations of Russian
  9. Languages of Russia
  10. List of countries where Russian is an official language
  11. List of English words of Russian origin
  12. List of languages of Russia
  13. Spelling rule
  14. Romanization of Russian
  15. Russian language-History of the Russian language
  16. List of Russian language television channels
  17. Reduplication in the Russian language
  18. Reforms of Russian orthography
  19. Rules of Russian Orthography and Punctuation
  20. Russian language-Runglish
  21. Russian exonyms
  22. Russian Morse code
  23. Russian sayings
  24. Russianism
  25. Russophone
  26. Slavic languages
  27. Test of Russian as a Foreign Language
  28. The differences of Moscovian and St.-Petersburg's speech
  29. Vowel reduction in Russian
  30. Russian proverbs
  31. Russian proverbs:USSR
  32. ALA-LC romanization for Russian
  33. Great Russian language
  34. Olympiada of Spoken Russian
  35. Russian cursive
  36. Russian jokes
  37. Russian National Corpus


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